2 Biographical Additions To The Plath Phenomenon

from: The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) - November 17, 1991

by Ruth Walker

A Biography of Sylvia Plath by PAUL ALEXANDER Viking. 402 pp. $24.95


The recognition that the gifted American poet Sylvia Plath achieved during her short life was minor compared with the attention that has been lavished on her since her suicide in a cold London flat nearly 30 years ago.

This season has brought two biographical additions to the outburst of books and articles about the Plath phenomenon.

The more readable of the two is Paul Alexander's Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. A longtime admirer of her poetry, Alexander previously edited Ariel Descending, a collection of writings about Plath's life and work. He credits Plath with "some of the century's most accomplished poetry."

Ronald Hayman's The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath is described by the author with excessive modesty as a "biographical study." Both Alexander and Hayman suffered from a common handicap: lack of cooperation from Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, poet laureate of England since 1984. Numerous writers have complained that Hughes and his sister, the redoutable Olwyn, have demanded veto power over manuscripts in exchange for permission to quote copyright material. Alexander and Hayman did not place themselves under that constraint.

Plath was estranged from Hughes when she gassed herself after carefully sealing the door of her two small children's room so they would escape the oven's fumes. By this time, Hughes had taken up with Assia Wevill, who later killed herself - and her small child.

Plath's father, a professor at Boston University, died when she was 8, having neglected to receive medical attention for a treatable condition.

Plath was to address him in one of her most celebrated poems, "Daddy." Her indomitable mother, Aurelia, also a teacher, became something of a prototype of the self-sacrificing parent dedicated to the advancement of her children. Aurelia Plath's clothes were dowdy so Sylvia's could be stylish.

Plath published at an early age, and she earned numerous distinctions at Smith College, but she also began building up a record of mental instability. During a college summer, she attempted suicide. Some of the experiences related to this attempt appear in her novel The Bell Jar. The rising young poet went to Cambridge as a Fulbright scholar and soon met the magnetic Hughes, who had already finished Cambridge. The popular American author Olive Higgins Prouty wrote Plath that Hughes "sounds too much like Dylan Thomas for me to think he would make a satisfactory husband and father."

Plath's first book, The Colossus and Other Poems, received scant attention when it appeared in England in 1960. By contrast, the first two collections of Hughes' poetry were widely acclaimed. Plath's Ariel, published after her death, was an extraordinary success. Alexander says that in 20 years it sold more than half a million copies, becoming one of the best-selling poetry volumes published in England or America in this century. Almost 20 years after Plath died, her Collected Poems won a Pulitzer Prize.

Perhaps both Alexander and Hayman dwell too extensively on Plath's youthful romances, and Hayman surely is too addicted to psychological jargon. Nevertheless, both books deserve many readers - and should cause many of those readers to seek out Plath's poetry.

Caption Photo Sylvia Plath Pulitzer Prize-winning poet

Copyright(c)1991, Landmark Communications, Inc.

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